Learn to write an exceptional exposé in 7 minutes
Impress your doctoral supervisor. With an extraordinary research exposé. We walk you through all components – step by step. Everything from structure to content – explained in simple terms. Start right away!
Welcome to the tutorial “Prepare your PhD with an exposé extraordinaire“. Anyone applying for a doctorate at a university, graduate school, or fellowship must submit a research exposé. The purpose of such an exposé is to convince your potential doctoral supervisor or the doctoral committee of your research project. However, writing an exposé is extremely demanding and time-consuming. In addition, prospective doctoral candidates are often unclear about what an exposé should contain. In this tutorial, we will therefore provide you with a precise overview of the steps you need to take in order to create a convincing exposé with which you will blow your potential supervisor’s mind.
Purpose of a research exposé
Before we introduce you to the structure of an exposé in detail, we will first give you a general idea of this type of text. The exposé is the project outline for your doctoral thesis. It describes the intended research project, its relevance as well as the planned method and timeframe for carrying out the project.
In doing so, the exposé fulfills several functions at once: On the one hand, it is about convincing others to approve your doctoral project or to obtain a scholarship or a doctoral position. On the other hand, it serves to provide clarity to your approach by structuring your previous preparatory work and the individual work steps according to specific criteria.
As far as the scope of an exposé for a doctoral thesis is concerned, the respective department is of essential importance. In principle, the size should be in relation to the intended scope of the thesis. For example, an exposé for a doctoral thesis in the humanities will usually be more extensive than for a doctoral thesis in medicine. As a rule of thumb, the body text of an exposé, i.e. without cover page and bibliography, should be between five and 20 pages.
It is critical to the success of your exposé that you align yourself with the research priorities of the educational institution or supervisor where you are applying. The more your exposé fits in, the more likely it is that your research project will be met with approval. And since an exposé is a scientific type of text, you should not forget to strictly follow all the criteria of academic writing here as well. This also includes citing sources correctly.
Exposé writing explained step by step
Now that you know the basics of what an exposé is about, we can turn to the main thing: the structure and content of an exposé. First of all, we would like to point out that the specific structure and content of a dissertation depends strongly on the discipline and the dissertation project. Nevertheless, there are some components that are usually included in every exposé and should therefore be considered by you.
Let's begin with the first point. Every exposé starts with a cover sheet. There, in addition to your name, date of birth, and contact information, you will also specify the preliminary title of your thesis as well as the university, department, and institute.
Next is a concise summary about the thesis topic and a brief explanation of the problem. This includes placing the topic in the research landscape, detailing the relevance and timeliness of the topic, and highlighting a research gap that you intend to fill with your work. The scope of the summary is approximately the same as that of an abstract.
In order to justify and legitimize your own project, you present the current state of research in the next step. Present the relevant literature on your dissertation topic and reflect on it with regard to your problem. In this context, the goal is to show which research results are already available, which trends are prevailing, and to what extent your work will contribute to new research findings based on these results. Insofar as you are tracing how the subject area in question has developed in research, you can also use older literature. But the primary focus should be on current literature. By the way, if you have already done scientific work on the topic, for example as part of a bachelor's or master's thesis, you should also mention this at this point.
Based on your literature review, you can now present the theoretical framework of your research project by indicating which theories you would like to refer to. At this point you explain essential terms and definitions and indicate to what extent the theory can make an argumentative contribution to your work. Another option is to design your own theory model based on various elements of existing theories or models. In any case, the presentation of the theoretical background serves to lay the foundation for your investigation.
Once the theoretical foundation for your thesis is laid, it's time to define the goal of your project. Referring back to the problem definition, you must explain in more detail what exactly is to be accomplished at the end of the work, why this is relevant to the research, and how this will lead to a gain in knowledge. Based on the objectives, you will develop a central research question and possible sub-questions. Depending on the subject area, it may also be necessary to formulate hypotheses and make assertions in this context.
After that, what matters is how you want to answer the guiding question and any other questions that arise from it. To this end, your task is to list each step, describe the method used for each step, and justify the use of each method. Which methods are used depends on whether your research is a literature research, an empirical research, or an experimental research. The spectrum of methods therefore ranges from texts and case studies to qualitative and quantitative content analyses, experiments, interviews, questionnaires and software.
Of course, good project planning also includes a preliminary outline as well as a realistic timetable to give yourself and your potential supervisor some orientation. In the outline, you give the preliminary structure of the thesis in the form of a table of contents. If you do not yet know how to name the individual chapters, your sub-questions will suffice as titles for the time being.
In the schedule, you define a time period in tabular form for each work step and specify which results are to be achieved at the respective time. You should also assign sub-questions and methods to the individual periods. It is common to divide the time periods into months or quarters.
When applying for a scholarship or a doctoral position, you should keep in mind that the total period to be considered is usually two to three years. In addition, it may also be necessary to add a financing plan in these cases.
This brings us to the last point. A preliminary bibliography belongs at the end of an exposé. Here you list all the sources that you have evaluated for the preparation of your exposé. You should limit yourself to those publications that have proven useful and relevant in your preliminary work. It is also important that you list the sources in alphabetical order.
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